December 16, 2014

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China & the Balkans - A geopolitical Battle in its Beginning Phases

Filip Kovacevic (Boiling Frogs Post) - The presence of China in the Balkans is not new. During the years of the Cold War, China closely cooperated first with Albania and then with Yugoslavia. In fact, Albania was one of the key initiators of the UN resolution 2758 which led to the UN recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1971.[1]

Towards the end of the 1970s, the relations between Albania and China deteriorated, largely due to the opinion of the supreme Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha that the Chinese leadership began taking the revisionist path regarding the classics of Marxism-Leninism.[2]

As the later developments showed, Hoxha’s assessment was right on the mark. It is not surprising therefore that, after the death of Mao Zedong, the Communist party of China began cultivating friendly relations with the openly revisionist and non-aligned Yugoslavia.

During the wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, China generally took a neutral standpoint and supported the decisions made by the UN Security Council concerning the situation on the ground. This attitude changed during the NATO attack on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (the rump Yugoslav federation, consisting only of Serbia and Montenegro).

At that time, during one of the NATO raids on the Yugoslav capital Belgrade in early May 1999, NATO bombs hit and severely damaged the Chinese Embassy. Three people were killed and twenty injured, including Chinese diplomats.[3] NATO officials blamed outdated maps and other technical details, but the Chinese government was not convinced. Large-scale protest demonstrations took place all over China in condemnation of what was seen as an unprovoked aggression by NATO.[4]

It appears that this brutal infringement by NATO on the sovereign space of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade made the Chinese government re-consider its Balkan policy. Instead of more or less pronounced indifference which prevailed for a decade, it decided to accept the challenge of its Atlantic geopolitical adversary and get involved in the region more closely.

In fact, since 2000, the Chinese trade grew on average 30 percent annually not only with the Balkan countries, but also with their neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe.[5] In April 2012, the Chinese relations with this part of the world were raised on a higher level by the organization of the so-called “16+1″ summit in Warsaw.

The “16″ stood for the sixteen countries of the Central and Eastern Europe (11 EU members and 5 EU candidates) and “1″ for China. There was even the talk of setting up a formal Secretariat and hence becoming an international organization with a legal status.

The first summit in Warsaw focused on the economic side of the relationship and especially on the possibility of Chinese large-scale investments.[6] Having just gone through a deep economic crisis, the Eastern and Central European countries were looking for ways to jump-start their economies and China was basking in the newly found but deserved role of the global player. No wonder that this summit attracted a lot of attention from the European Commission and their transatlantic US allies.

Some observers claimed that yet another rift was being created in the European Union between the so-called  “old Europe” (the EU founding members) and the “New Europe” (the former Communist countries). These two “halves” of the EU had already gone through a spate of animosity over the involvement in the Iraq war in 2003.[7]

However, most experts have been uncertain as to whether there is any cause for concern by the EU Commissioners in Brussels and the officials of the US-NATO Empire.

On the level of personalities, last year’s summit in Bucharest involved a new figure on the Chinese side. In between the two summits, Li Keqiang replaced Wen Jiabao, who many consider the ideologue of the Chinese Central-Eastern European-Balkan pivot,  in the post of the prime minister. But the Chinese political line remained unchanged.

The Bucharest summit participants adopted certain formal guidelines, concerning increased cooperation in the fields of infrastructure development, science, technology, tourism, etc.[8] The key element in all of this constitute, of course, the credit lines of Chinese banks.

As far as the concrete things go, the prime minister of Hungary, the perpetual EU “rebel”, Viktor Orban got a Chinese commitment to invest more than $2 billion dollars in the Budapest-Belgrade rail line and the host nation Romania was offered up to $8 billion dollars in investments.[9] This is much more than the EU could offer these countries in recent years and I think that it is likely to lead to more problems in the EU internal functioning in the future.

However, no doubt due to the historical as well as recent political ties, Yugoslavia’s legal successor state Serbia, a non-member of the EU, was singled out by the Chinese for a particularly important bridge building project on the Danube. The construction of a 1.5 kilometer long bridge started in 2011 and, though it took longer than expected, the bridge will be officially opened during this year’s “16+1″ summit in Belgrade on December 16 and 17.[10] This is the biggest infrastructure project completed by a Chinese state company (in this case, China Road and Bridge Corporation) in the Balkans so far. Both the Chinese and Serbian officials are announcing “many more” projects to come and this is definitely in line with the Chinese Balkan strategy.[11]

This trend can be seen in the neighboring Montenegro as well. In October 2014, the government of Montenegro signed an agreement with the Chinese Exim Bank on a $1 billion loan for the construction of a stretch of a highway through Montenegro to be built by the already mentioned China Road and Bridge Corporation.[12] This decision, however, encountered strong dissent from the opposition parties which claimed that the loan would enormously increase the already high public debt and that the government entered into a corrupt construction scheme in order to further enrich its business cronies.[13] Many even questioned the necessity of constructing the highway at all.

However, it is not for those reasons (no matter what they say publicly) that the global economic levers of the US-NATO Empire, the IMF and the World Bank, oppose not only this particular highway project, but also other Chinese investment projects in the Balkans and the Central and Eastern Europe. They know well that what is taking place here is truly a battle for geopolitical influence and power. The US-NATO Empire has lost the aura of invincibility it had during the last two decades and the emerging multi-polarity of the world is getting its Balkan reflection as well.

This geopolitical battle is still in its beginning phases, but I expect it to intensify in the coming years, especially as China and Russia (which is a traditional ally of many Balkan countries) come to cooperate more closely not only in the economic, but also in the political and the military sphere, and as the daily functioning of the EU institutions begins to show more and more tear & wear under the pressure from the warmongering circles in Washington and London.

The author, Filip Kovacevic, is a contributor on Boiling Frogs Post. Kovacevic is an analyst, a geopolitical author, university professor and the chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro. He received his BA and PhD in political science in the US and was a visiting professor at St. Petersburg State University in Russia for two years. He is the author of seven books, dozens of academic articles. He has been invited to lecture throughout the EU, Balkans, ex-USSR and the US. He currently resides in San Francisco, and can be contacted at


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